The AmericanaramA Festival of Music made its second to last tour stop in the confines of venue formerly known as the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater. The young men working the lot let people park wherever they liked, creating patches of empty rows rather than maximizing the space. For those who got their early, the parking lot party was in full swing with the Grateful Dead heard playing on most car stereos. The jam-packed line-up for the evening not only led to opener roots-rocker Ryan Bingham to take the stage on time, but he and the quartet that backed him were a minute early according to my clock.
After making our way in and settling on the lawn, Binghman was singing with a gravely voice reminiscent of modern-day Dylan over a tune with a country vibe. The next song was much more blues based with fiddle player Richard Bowden confounding expectations by getting some good solos. For their last song, a steel guitar and harmonica augmented the arrangement as they returned to the previous country sound. This was the first time I had ever heard Bingham’s work and he definitely created at least one fan curious about his work, and I couldn’t have been the only one over the course of his 30-minute set.
The road crews deserve some recognition because it took only 15 minutes before My Morning Jacket took the stage. They opened with “Circuital,” a typical MMJ song that found the band going on long instrumental runs that would build and send the musicians soaring. With the addition of a saxophone, “First Light” brought a bit of funk to the party. With the music serving as a soundtrack, the mountains in distance could be seen, bringing with it the realization how pleasant it was to be enjoying a concert with the sun still up and not bringing with it brutal heat like summer-concert season-starter Coachella.
A reggae influence could be heard in “Off the Record” and during the Dead-like jams, they delivered more rock than jazz then the aforementioned did. A dragonfly flew a few feet above our section. It zig-zagged around, hovering for a moment, then darting off, but not leaving. It buzzed around for quite a bit, seemingly entranced by the music and entrancing those whose attention it captured.
Lead singer Jim James went on a funny riff about how great it was to be starting the day, even though it was about 6:45 PM. He then brought out Dawes singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith to join the band on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” They played acoustic guitars and James’ falsetto rang out of the speakers. This was was followed up by another surprise. Jackson Browne, who joined them for a performance of his “Late for the Sky” as well as a cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” from Nashville Skyline. Bowden played on the latter and his band leader reappeared for a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It” by way of The Band’s rendition. The three-guitar attack was surpassed by the keyboards tearing it up. After 12 songs and over 70 minutes, their set came to a close.
During the 30-minute break, I upgraded my seats from the lawn to the orchestra to get a closer look at Wilco play, especially guitarist Nels Cline. It was a fortunate move as my buddy told me a woman nestled next to them with a young infant, which became the focus of a shouting match between another woman and the mother regarding what they were doing there.
While the band’s on the bill obviously owe a debt to headliner Dylan, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy honored an artist an who influenced Dylan by opening with the Mermaid Avenue track “At My Window Sad and Lonely,” featuring lyrics by Woody Guthrie. Cline played steel pedal on this country-rock track. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen took the lead on “You Are My Face.” Cline came back to the forefront playing with effects at the end of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and during “The Art of the Almost.” The lighting really came into play during the latter and Cline was a beast as he led the band at their most Radioheadesque.
Though guest appearances have been a common occurrence on the tour, the appearance of Nancy Sinatra had to be the most surprising of the entire tour. Cline backed her alone as she sang “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” with drummer Glenn Kotche on hand only to punctuate the “bang bang”. The simple arrangement really let her voice ring out. The rest of the band came out and she knew that we knew what was next. John Stirratt’s bass by really shined during “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”
After singing happy birthday to the soundman, they played his request “When You Wake Up Feeling Old.” Bowden returned once again, starting with Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid.” Jackson Browne made another appearance during “California Stars” with members of MMJ. Tweedy stated Nancy requested ‘Heavy Metal Drummer,” and he sang the wrong verse, but the band marched on. Bingham joined them for “Casino Queen” and as did My Morning Jacket for a raucous cover of Neil Young’s “Cinammon Girl.”
Bob Dylan took the stage, starting with a run of songs from Time out of Mind onward that led to a slow trickle of folks leaving, which was their loss as he and his superb band delivered an impressive set of music. They began with western swing version of “Things Have Changed” from the film Wonder Boys. A slow-driving ‘Love Sick” found Dylan playing the harmonica. On “High Water (for Charley Patton),” Donnie Herron’s banjo and Tony Garnier’s bass really came to the forefront.
Dylan moved to the piano for “Soon After Midnight” and the lighting on the backdrop evoked the starry night on a prairie, accentuating the country lilt of the song. Garnier evoked the rhythm of a moving train as he slapped the bass during “Duquense Whistle.”
Although a frequent complaint against Dylan is the way he changes the arrangements, I don’t blame the man considering how long he’s been playing some on these songs if that’s what it takes to make them interesting to him. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was done like a gospel number and the lyrics certainly fit that interpretation. “Blind Willie McTell” had a Cajun sound, and Dylan’s vocals on “Simple Twist of Fate” evoked Tom Waits.
In a concert filled with highlights, the greatest may have been Dylan having Bingham, James, and Tweedy join him and take turn singing leads on the Band’s “The Weight” along with may folks in the crowd who remained. The evening ended with two classic Dylan songs, “All Along the Watchtower” and “The Ballad of the Thin Man.” Although Dylan’s piano solos on the former faltered a touch, the band never wavered in its support.
It’s unfortunate that the tour has ended, but AmericanaramA has set a high bar for all single-day concert events to come.